When I was four, I lived with my mother and brothers and sisters in a small town on the island of Luzon. Father’s farm had been destroyed in 1918 by one of our sudden Philippine floods, so several years afterwards we all lived in the town though he preferred living in the country. We had as a next door neighbour a very rich man, whose sons and daughters seldom came out of the house. While we boys and girls played and sang in the sun, his children stayed inside and kept the windows closed. His house was so tall that his children could look in the window of our house and watched us played, or slept, or ate, when there was any food in the house to eat.
Now, this rich man’s servants were always frying and cooking something good, and the aroma of the food was wafted down to us form the windows of the big house. We hung about and took all the wonderful smells of the food into our beings. Sometimes, in the morning, our whole family stood outside the windows of the rich man’s house and listened to the musical sizzling of thick strips of bacon or ham. I can remember one afternoon when our neighbour’s servants roasted three chickens. The chickens were young and tender and the fat that dripped into the burning coals gave off an enchanting odour. We watched the servants turn the beautiful birds and inhaled the heavenly spirit that drifted out to us.
Some days the rich man appeared at a window and glowered down at us. He looked at us one by one, as though he were condemning us. We were all healthy because we went out in the sun and bathed in the cool water of the river that flowed from the mountains into the sea. Sometimes we wrestled with one another in the house before we went to play. We were always in the best of spirits and our laughter was contagious. Other neighbours who passed by our house often stopped in our yard and joined us in laughter.
As time went on, the rich man’s children became thin and anaemic, while we grew even more robust and full of life. Our faces were bright and rosy, but theirs were pale and sad. The rich man started to cough at night; then he coughed day and night. His wife began coughing too. Then the children started to cough, one after the other. At night their coughing sounded like the barking of a herd of seals. We hung outside their windows and listened to them. We wondered what happened. We knew that they were not sick from the lack of nourishment because they were still always frying something delicious to eat.
One day the rich man appeared at a window and stood there a long time. He looked at my sisters, who had grown fat in laughing, then at my brothers, whose arms and legs were like the molave, which is the sturdiest tree in the Philippines. He banged down the window and ran through his house, shutting all the windows.
From that day on, the windows of our neighbour’s house were always closed. The children did not come out anymore. We could still hear the servants cooking in the kitchen, and no matter how tight the windows were shut, the aroma of the food came to us in the wind and drifted gratuitously into our house.
One morning a policeman from the presidencia came to our house with a sealed paper. The rich man had filed a complaint against us. Father took me with him when he went to the town clerk and asked him what it was about. He told Father the man claimed that for years we had been stealing the spirit of his wealth and food.
When the day came for us to appear in court, father brushed his old Army uniform and borrowed a pair of shoes from one of my brothers. We were the first to arrive. Father sat on a chair in the centre of the courtroom. Mother occupied a chair by the door. We children sat on a long bench by the wall. Father kept jumping up from his chair and stabbing the air with his arms, as though we were defending himself before an imaginary jury.
The rich man arrived. He had grown old and feeble; his face was scarred with deep lines. With him was his young lawyer. Spectators came in and almost filled the chairs. The judge entered the room and sat on a high chair. We stood in a hurry and then sat down again.
After the courtroom preliminaries, the judge looked at the Father. “Do you have a lawyer?” he asked.
“I don’t need any lawyer, Judge,” he said.
“Proceed,” said the judge.
The rich man’s lawyer jumped up and pointed his finger at Father. “Do you or you do not agree that you have been stealing the spirit of the complaint’s wealth and food?”
“I do not!” Father said.
“Do you or do you not agree that while the complaint’s servants cooked and fried fat legs of lamb or young chicken breast you and your family hung outside his windows and inhaled the heavenly spirit of the food?”
“I agree.” Father said.
“Do you or do you not agree that while the complaint and his children grew sickly and tubercular you and your family became strong of limb and fair in complexion?”
“I agree.” Father said.
“How do you account for that?”
Father got up and paced around, scratching his head thoughtfully. Then he said, “I would like to see the children of complaint, Judge.”
“Bring in the children of the complaint.”
They came in shyly. The spectators covered their mouths with their hands, they were so amazed to see the children so thin and pale. The children walked silently to a bench and sat down without looking up. They stared at the floor and moved their hands uneasily.
Father could not say anything at first. He just stood by his chair and looked at them. Finally he said, “I should like to cross – examine the complaint.”
“Do you claim that we stole the spirit of your wealth and became a laughing family while yours became morose and sad?” Father said.
“Do you claim that we stole the spirit of your food by hanging outside your windows when your servants cooked it?” Father said.
“Then we are going to pay you right now,” Father said. He walked over to where we children were sitting on the bench and took my straw hat off my lap and began filling it up with centavo pieces that he took out of his pockets. He went to Mother, who added a fistful of silver coins. My brothers threw in their small change.
“May I walk to the room across the hall and stay there for a few minutes, Judge?” Father said.
“As you wish.”
“Thank you,” father said. He strode into the other room with the hat in his hands. It was almost full of coins. The doors of both rooms were wide open.
“Are you ready?” Father called.
“Proceed.” The judge said.
The sweet tinkle of the coins carried beautifully in the courtroom. The spectators turned their faces toward the sound with wonder. Father came back and stood before the complaint.
“Did you hear it?” he asked.
“Hear what?” the man asked.
“The spirit of the money when I shook this hat?” he asked.
“Then you are paid,” Father said.
The rich man opened his mouth to speak and fell to the floor without a sound. The lawyer rushed to his aid. The judge pounded his gravel.
“Case dismissed.” He said.
Father strutted around the courtroom the judge even came down from his high chair to shake hands with him. “By the way,” he whispered, “I had an uncle who died laughing.”
“You like to hear my family laugh, Judge?” Father asked?
“Did you hear that children?” father said.
My sisters started it. The rest of us followed them soon the spectators were laughing with us, holding their bellies and bending over the chairs. And the laughter of the judge was the loudest of all.
Aguila, Augusto Antonio A., Joyce L. Arriola and John Jack Wigley. Philippine Literatures: Texts, Themes, Approaches. Espana, Manila: Univesity of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Print.